Everyone can agree that our government leaders need timely, accurate, and trustworthy information in order to make informed policy decisions. In national security or foreign policy arena, we expect the intelligence community to provide it. But when you ask intelligence officials to define “intelligence,” they tie themselves in knots. And without a defined understanding of “intelligence,” policy makers don’t know what they are investing in when they give the intelligence community broad power and resources, which often leaves them disappointed in the results.
Most often, intelligence agencies describe intelligence as a process, or the product of a process. What they won’t say is that intelligence is “timely, accurate and trustworthy information.” In fact, the “intelligence” used to justify the Iraq war was determined to be “stale, fragmentary, and speculative,” and even “nefarious and unreliable.” This is because the raw material for intelligence often comes from dubious informers with sketchy motives, leaked or stolen documents of unknown provenance, and the potentially flawed perceptions of intelligence agents and analysts. The intelligence “process” can then add more confusion than it clears by masking sources and methods, compartmentalizing information and knowledge, inserting error or bias, failing to incorporate contrary facts or arguments, and bending to political influences. The closed and secretive intelligence process makes it harder, not easier to discover and correct errors in fact, mistakes in judgement, and intentional distortions.
Yet, when policy makers discuss their need for “intelligence,” they talk about it as if it is an oracle of perfected knowledge, and budget accordingly.
The problem is there’s a lot you would pay, and a lot of tactics you could justify, to obtain perfect knowledge that you would never spend on a best guess based on limited information. In national security matters particularly, the magnitude of the mission generates an impulse, almost an obligation, among those working in the field to push all boundaries of reason in searching for those magical pieces of information that will save the country from all imaginable harm. But intelligence gathering activities also carry their own risks, and rather than informing effective policies, they can undermine them.
So it is very important when we discuss “intelligence,” that we dig down deep to ensure that we have a solid understanding of the nature of the information we are seeking, why we are seeking it, from whom, and the legality, morality and effectiveness of the methods we are using to collect it.
Dr. John Elliff, former domestic intelligence task force leader of the Church Committee who later went on to work at the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, and Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, describes the primary functions of our modern intelligence enterprise:
Dr. Elliff’s distinction between military, foreign and domestic intelligence activities is crucial, but often overlooked. Though they share a last name, military, foreign and domestic intelligence should be treated as three completely different disciplines, with different goals, rules, and toolboxes.
The propriety of a particular intelligence method will vary significantly depending on whether we’re trying to obtain a hostile nation’s nuclear attack plans, a foreign trade representative’s negotiation strategy, or an American politician’s financial records. Investigating the pornography habits or sexual proclivities of a North Korean general to blackmail him into committing espionage might be justifiable. Doing the same thing to foreign religious figures, or innocent Americans is repugnant, if not illegal. Employing tools developed for use against foreign enemies against people who do not pose a national security threat is unnecessarily antagonistic and provocative.
Elliff’s ranking of the different disciplines is helpful. Military intelligence, the preparation for war or defense from attack, is most necessary and important. Clandestine intelligence gathering to assist in the development of foreign policy is also needed, but he acknowledges that policy makers have access to other useful information sources, such as newspapers, academic studies, and reports from interest groups, from which to make decisions. Domestic intelligence collection, he argues, is necessary but only legitimate when it is focused on uncovering criminal activities.
Elliff warns that the power of military intelligence tools makes them difficult to control through oversight by courts, legislatures, or even agency executives:
Yet aggressive surveillance tools and spying techniques developed for use by the military often end up getting used for more mundane “intelligence” purposes, a dangerous mission creep where the risk outweighs any potential reward. The NSA wiretapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone was an embarrassing overreach that demonstrated our intelligence officials’ failure to consider the potential long-term consequences of their actions. Just because they can doesn’t mean they should. The broad scope of U.S. mass surveillance programs have likewise caused political, diplomatic, and legal conflicts with our allies, and inflicted serious economic damage on American commercial interests.
Our intelligence agencies should have foreseen these conflicts and prevented them. Last January, in response to the fallout from these activities, President Obama promised to limit electronic surveillance of foreign populations by properly focusing our intelligence collection efforts on national security threats. Subsequent arrests of two CIA moles within German government ministries this summer make clear the intelligence agencies haven’t learned the lesson, however. Covert intelligence activities that alienate other nations undermine U.S. interests, ultimately harming national security. Treating everyone as if they are our enemies just isn’t smart for an intelligence agency.